Loving Sparrows: From putting out the recycling to avoiding the rubbish heap

Some thoughts on Matthew chapter 10

by Rev. Andy Murphy

I remember once having quite a spiritual experience as I went to put out the recycling. There on the ground lay a little sparrow; not a new-born chick but not much more than a fledgling. This poor little bird lay on its back breathing slowly. It was so fragile, so sweet, so helpless and vulnerable, and it was going to die. It has obviously hit one of the windows and fallen to the ground. It had a wound on the back of its head but it was still breathing – its helpless little face looking upwards. Not struggling, not writhing, just breathing.

As I stood there, my first emotion was utter powerlessness: I was sure a vet couldn’t save it, Emily doesn’t keep anaesthetics in the house, and I had no idea how to humanely put it out of its misery. But really, as I looked at it, there was no misery: this little sparrow was quite at peace. And then I remembered Jesus’ words, and a voice spoke in my mind: “It’s okay, I know about this, I am here.” I got the real sense that God was holding that little bird as it died. And then I heard the words: “And you are worth more to me than many sparrows.”

Jesus said,

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

(Matthew 10:29-31)

This sense of God’s love that enfolds all of God’s creation should be the overriding thought in our minds as we read the Bible. This is the God who made this beautiful world and every species of every plant and creature, and who has a special place in his heart for human beings.

Matthew chapter 10 can otherwise seem quite a ‘dark’ chapter. It’s about going out on mission and facing opposition and persecution. It comes as a reality-check to anyone who thinks following Jesus will be easy. The disciples of Jesus will face much opposition in this world – from the rulers and authorities of the world, to even those within their own family. Jesus didn’t mince his words. He wanted to be honest with his followers about what they might find as they went out in his name. It certainly wasn’t to be a stroll in the park. Neither will it be for his followers 21st century.

But, Jesus says, “have no fear”. Everything hidden will be uncovered, all secret injustices will be exposed, and so will our faithfulness to him. Go out and tell his good news in the light, don’t be ashamed of the message, and don’t fear those who might hurt us.

Yet, Jesus says (in verse 28), there is one whom we should be wary of; one who could torment us and lead us away from God’s kingdom – lead us towards ‘hell’ (Gehenna). Some would delete this verse from the Bible altogether, while many think that it is actually referring to God. Some popular Bible translations have even taken the liberty of inserting God’s name into this sentence, because the Greek is unclear whom Jesus is talking about. [e.g. the Good News Bible, the Living Bible, New Living Translation, Contemporary English Version. And many other versions capitalise the ‘Him’ or the ‘One’ to give the same impression.]

That choice of translation comes from a longstanding and widespread idea (going back to the middle ages) about God being the one who desires to cast us in hell for all eternity (or is somehow morally bound to do so). It baffles me as to why modern translations would to want to reinforce this dubious idea, and I think it is certainly not the God that Jesus represents: our loving heavenly Parent. This is why we need to hold in mind from the start the overriding truth of God’s love for all creation.

Now, going down the road to hell or ‘Gehenna’ (as Jesus called it) may be a possibility. Metaphorically-speaking, descending to the ‘rubbish heap’ (as Gehenna was in those days) can and does happen, whether by falling to the depths of hatred and depravity in this world, or by refusing to accept God’s loving grace in our lives – living instead in torment and shame. But it is never God who would choose to send us there. It is not God who desires to torment us. There are other forces, others lords, other idols which can enslave us (if we let them). And the Bible speaks of one who stands over them – the serpent, the satan, the devil, the prince of darkness, Beelzebub. Jesus often spoke about such an enemy, but when talking on God’s behalf he always said: “Do not be afraid”.

Psalm 86 reminds us that God is ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Psalm 86: verse 15). Remember that God the Parent is the one who cares even for the little sparrows; the one who loves us as his own children, and is so desperately in love with us that he counts the hairs on our heads: there is nothing about us that goes unnoticed: there’s no joy in us that doesn’t make God burst with laughter; and there’s no injury or injustice to us, no pain or heartache, that doesn’t also wrench the heart of God; no prayer is too small; no worry too insignificant; our tears are not merely drops in the ocean to God – they are the pools of compassion that God swims in. One day he will wipe away those tears, we are told: One day when the Lamb sits on the throne in the Holy City, and the work begins of healing the nations (Revelation chapters 21 and 22).

Sometimes we meet situations where there seems no way out, no answer, no rescue. But Jesus says: “Do not be afraid, precious child: all these things are in God’s loving hands”. Our prayers may not be answered as we long for – but that doesn’t mean God isn’t holding us with the utmost love. There are mysteries, there are unfathomable griefs, and it has always been this way, but there is no injustice that won’t be undone, no hurt that won’t be healed, no grief that won’t be turned to joy, when Jesus makes all things new.

Andrew T. Murphy, 19th June 2020